Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Atari's Warlords -- Then and Now



This summer Atari will be releasing a new version of the classic Arcade/Atari 2600 "Pong variant" game Warlords -- a game that was programmed for the Atari 2600 by Carla Meninsky who was one of the few women game designers of the era. The game is an example of Atari's ability to build upon the game play of prior designs and how one's perception of a game can be changed merely through the application of thematic elements.

If one were presented the graphics of the original game without the introduction of thematic/narrative elements, one might enjoy the game purely for its play but one would likely have very little emotional stake invested in success. By adding the narrative them of competing warlords destroying each others' castles, it provides the player with emotional stakes in succeeding and allows the player to project themselves into the role of a character. It also makes the player think about the computer opponents as if they have personalities. Listen to the voice over in the video describing how to succeed at Warlords, the reviewer discusses the computer opponents as if they were real opponents based on their AI behavior. This is only really possible due to the background and art provided in the instruction manual. Given the limited graphics capabilities of early Atari games, the packaging and instructions were often as important as the video game's visuals.


Now take a look at the modern variation of the game. While the inter-cutting of game play and interstitial makes it difficult to get a firm grip of game play at first, one can readily see that this is essentially a prettied up version of the original game -- with the addition that the number of players is variable. One also sees how advances in the graphics capabilities of games has added the ability to show players what they could only imagine in the past. The "floating warlord shield" of the original is purely abstract, while the newer shield is literally a shield attached to the walls of the fortress.


There is much to be said about the aesthetic appeal of the graphics for the upcoming game, they look humorous and fun, but there is also something lacking. The original graphics, while primitive from an artistic point of view, had a clean presentation that allowed for non-distracted game play. You don't have a lot of surplus imagery distracting you from the task at hand. Your mind is still imagining all of the chaos of war between you and your fellow warlords, but you don't have the very real visual distraction.

It is interesting how often modern games can forget that sometimes simpler is better and that we don't need HD cartoons for every game we play. Games like Uncharted and Assassin's Creed use increased graphics capabilities to create interactive movie experiences, and they are wonderful, but there are other kinds of playing experience that are equally fun. The new Warlords looks fun, but it also makes me long for the original. Much in the same way that modern Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games make me appreciate the Table Top Role Playing Game experience.
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